Safely Crossing Backcountry Streams – AMC Outdoors

ShutterstockMelting snow in spring can cause water levels to increase and make crossings dangerous.

When you’re hiking, the opposite bank of a stream is usually just a few steps away — but not always. Without logs or steppingstones available, and especially in colder weather, stream crossings become a challenge. According to Bryan McFarland, former outdoor adventure guide and webmaster/scout for the Connecticut Explorer’s Guide, an online outdoor adventure resource, there are a number of techniques you can employ to minimize the danger.

LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP “Find a place where the stream is wide and more shallow and prepare to cross the stream by wading,” McFarland says. “Avoid bends in the stream because these areas usually hide a deep channel close to the outside edge of the bend.”

The ideal crossing condition is in water less than three feet deep and devoid of whitewater and strainers — obstacles such as fallen trees that can catch a large object and pin it down with the force of the water behind it.

“If you are crossing a fallen tree with tangled limbs and debris beneath, it could indicate a deadly strainer,” McFarland warns. “If you fall into the upstream side, getting sucked into the strainer and pinned would not be a very pleasant way to end your trip. So in this case, if you lose your balance, make every effort to fall into the downstream side.”

UNBUCKLE Once you’ve determined where to cross, unbuckle your pack’s hip belt and chest strap and loosen the shoulder straps to make it easy to shrug them off. Secure your boots or shoes to your pack and put on a pair of stream-crossing shoes or sandals if you have them — if you don’t, boots are a better option than bare feet. Check to ensure that your sleeping bag will stay dry regardless of the outcome. If you do fall in, it could be a lifesaver — and don’t attempt below-freezing crossings without one. As for your pants, roll them up or remove them if the water is above knee high.

WATCH YOUR STEP “When moving through the water, use your already planted foot to balance all of your weight on while using the free foot to search and feel for secure footing,” McFarland says. Trekking poles or sticks are useful tools in keeping your balance. And facing upstream while crossing will allow you to place more weight on your feet, which increases traction. If you slip, you’ll end up on your back with your feet up high, out of reach of submerged obstacles.

Hikers on the Appalachian Trail shouldn’t attempt to ford the Kennebec River in Maine since its depth can increase suddenly and without warning. A ferry is offered.

AFTER THE FALL If you do fall in, lose the pack. “If you still have your backpack on, remove it immediately and do not attempt to recover it until you have either regained your standing position or have removed yourself from the water,” says McFarland. If temperatures are below freezing, don’t attempt crossings that are deeper than two feet. Numbing can happen quickly, so factor in the width of the stream in cold crossings or those with a rapid current. If you think hypothermia is setting in, get out of your wet clothes and into a dry sleeping bag, and don’t hesitate to build a fire.

IN TOO DEEP? “Deep water between three and four feet deep can be crossed by wading, but only in slow-moving water,” McFarland says. “Be especially careful to avoid submerged logs, trees, or rocks; these can be detected by looking for subtle eddies, ripples, and wakes in otherwise flat water.” Avoid water more than four feet deep. If there is no alternative, swimming may be attempted by a strong swimmer if the current is not too fast, if the temperatures are above 60, and if there are friends to help in an emergency. “Swim with the current downstream at an angle toward the opposite bank and avoid all dangerous obstacles,” recommends McFarland.

Deep or rapid streams can also be crossed in groups of two or more, with members standing side-by-side with linked arms. Only one person should move at a time (and only one foot at a time) while the others provide support by keeping their feet firmly planted.

About the Author…

Joe Roman

AMC Outdoors inspires people to engage in outdoor conservation and recreation through meaningful stories.

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